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  Sustainable Urban Design

Sustainable development in the built environment
Sustainable development is explained here by presenting and then linking the mindset behind the main sustainability tenets to their associate urban design principals considering also any practical issues that may occur.

Urban design emerged out of the frequent failure of established built environment professions (civil engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, planning, property development) to deliver projects of true quality to society.

Well thought urban design can be sustainable, however this includes more than just reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.
The problem is development processes do not fully reflect environmental impact and thus environmental cost.
For starters on-site operational energy costs of a project may appear modest. However, when the environmental capital inherent in construction is to be considered (i.e. energy and resources included in the manufacture and transport of material, site preparation/infrastructure expansion and construction energy costs) then costs increase heavily.
In addition, there are energy costs (i.e. indoor temperature conditioning, lighting, ventilation, small power) linked to the operation, maintenance of a development as well as waste disposal and travel requirements of the users.

Furthermore, total life energy costs even for an efficient development may be as large as four times the energy embodied in the construction process.
Finally, there are considerable costs associated with a developments life ending. These costs mainly regard the alteration or demolition of the development and handling of the resulting site as well as the materials on it.

The sustainable approach begins and ends with making developments self-sufficient through becoming as less dependent on the wider environment for resources as possible and minimizing their pollution by reducing waste.
Self-sufficiency can be implemented at a range of scales depicted as spheres of influence as shown below:


The succession of minor changes can lead to considerable changes to overall systems of a neighbourhood, town, city, even the whole planet's biosphere.

The designers on each sphere above need to optimize the level of autonomy and thus reduce the impact of the inner to the outer spheres.

Following are the most recognized sustainable development tenets:

  • Futurity - maintain an environment at least as rich and secure equally good opportunities for future generations.
  • Environmental diversity - maintain and enhance all various forms of our natural capital (the foundation of sustainability).
  • Carrying capacity - as long as our activities remain within our environment;s carrying capacity, these can be accommodated indefinitely.
  • Precautionary principle - prevention is better than cure (uncertainty of environmental impact).
  • Equity & quality of life - sustainability relates to keeping all peoples' human needs satisfied.
  • Local empowerment - sustainability requires the acceptance and active involvement of the local community in its proceedings.
  • Polluter pays - The ones responsible compensate accordingly based on the measured impact of their actions.
Each one of these tenets relates to a number of sustainable design principles as illustrated within the figure below.

Sustainable Tenets

Based on the above, urban design is the tool for realizing sustainable development's fundamental goals.
The principals of urban design operate across the following spatial scales as analyzed further below:

  • Buildings
  • Urban spaces
  • Quarters
  • Settlements
(other scales may include towns, cities, even regional scales)

Stewardship relates to the process of supervising any works and taking care of the built environment long before a development is conceived to far after it has been completed. This process is progressed through a large number of contributions both from the private and public sector. Included within this process are urban maintenance, traffic management, regeneration, planning and conservation which are channeled in an integrated manner in order to achieve the most effective positive results for all living beings.
Naturally stewardship in sustainable design requires a broad and long term observation of costs versus benefits of any change considered at any scale, recognizing where sustainable quality exists and how this may be preserved. This responsibility can only lay on each government to establish clear and measurable targets per each sustainability aspect and explain the contribution of each target in achieving the greater integrated economic, social and environmental goals.

Specifically, by each spatial scale stewardship may relate to the following:
Buildings - provide feedback to the design and enhance context, optimize easy maintenance.
Spaces - respond to and enhance context, manage public realm, personalize public space and calm traffic.
Quarters - plan long term, revitalize, invest further resources.
Settlements - governments support stakeholder involvement, join up government regimes, urban management, planning, transport.

Resource efficiency relates to:

  • The minimization of consumption in energy and especially nonrenewable and even worse environmentally destructive materials
  • Making use of responsibly sourced environmentally friendly materials (both in new or retrofit developments) and of free renewable energy sources (i.e. solar gains for passive heating and lighting, and outdoor air for natural cooling and ensuring good indoor air quality)
  • Reducing energy consumption by optimum weatherproofing i.e. by better thermal insulation
  • Considering options to reduce further the energy consumed by our indoor temperature conditioning and other power systems
  • Utilizing renewable sources like wind and sun further for generating electrical energy locally via microgeneration schemes
Specifically, by each spatial scale resource efficiency may relate also to the following:
Buildings - embodied energy, local materials ideally recycled or recyclable.
Spaces - local materials, reduced vehicle speed and circulation, enhanced microclimate via sun and wind penetration /protection, water capturing and recycle/reuse.
Quarters - parking space reduction, combined heat & power systems, improved public transport, smaller urban blocks for improved natural light and ventilation.
Settlements - maximize efficiency of use and then invest further in public transport.

Diversity of choice relates to:
The part of environmental diversity focusing on the right to move within one;s constituency comfortably and freely. This mainly deals with the problems occurring due to space constrictions resulting from increasing privatization of parts of the public realm that exclude significant portions of the population.
The aim here is to re mix uses and tenures, remove barriers to access, design for walking, connect various spaces and networks constituting the public realm and support diversity in character.

Specifically, by each spatial scale diversity and choice may relate to the following:
Buildings - new opportunities to mix uses within buildings, mix building types, ages, tenures, accessible homes.
Spaces - mix uses along streets, blocks, design for walking /cycling, reduce privatization of public space.
Quarters - mix uses, support diversity in neighbourhoods by designing street and space networks, maintain local facilities and services.
Settlements - integrate travel modes, connect route networks, remove accessibility barriers, vary facilities and services amongst centres.

Human needs relates to:
Physiological needs (thermal comfort and shelter), safety and security, affiliation (belonging and acceptance), esteem, self-actualization (expression and fulfilment).

Specifically, by each spatial scale human needs may relate to the following:
Buildings - support innovation, artistic expression within the design plus visually interesting.
Spaces - legible, crime prevention integrated within design, safe playgrounds, distinguished vehicle and pedestrian areas, encouraged social contact.
Quarters - visual interesting networks, legible through landmarks and space disposition, social mix communities.
Settlements - legible via quarter identity and disposition, equity proven via land use disposition, specific image that fosters sense of belonging.

Resilience - relates to:

  • Any built form once constructed which represents an investment in energy and resources
  • Adaptable patterns of development based on various types of use also considering evolving technologies and climate change (expected hotter and dryer summers and warmer and wetter winters, rising sea level and flooding especially in Western Europe)
  • Softer and greener spaces which will offer cooler conditions within the urban environment with better air quality
  • Better understanding of the water courses leading to better management and use plus avoid flooding
  • All public and private spaces which may also contribute to future energy resilience via installing microgeneration technologies (PV, solar thermal, wind turbines, heat-pumps) plus gradually replace high carbon fuel sources
Specifically, by each spatial scale resilience may relate to the following:
Buildings - extendible, adaptable with resilient materials.
Spaces - robust and multifunctional, able to accommodate above or below ground infrastructure requirements, serviceable.
Quarters - robust urban block layouts, adaptable to change of use across districts
Settlements - robust web, long lasting adaptable infrastructure, recognition of future living and working patterns.

Pollution reduction relates to:

  • Efficient use of resources to reduce impact on the surrounding environment
  • Reduce energy for waste removal and disposal.
  • Keep people in clean cities rather than drive them to rural areas.
  • Reuse whatever materials possible.
  • Recycle all left over materials after applying the above.
Specifically, by each spatial scale pollution reduction may relate to the following:
Buildings - reuse and recycle rain, insulate against noise, treat onsite foul water with SUDs
Spaces - increase permeable surface to reduce water runoff, recycling facilities, improve ventilation to prevent polluted air buildup, prioritize public transport.
Quarters - match expected carbon emissions with tree planting, handle light pollution. Settlements - keep clean, control private transport, monitor end-of-pipe solutions to water disposal.

Concentration relates to:

  • Travel demand reduction
  • Energy use reduction for transport
  • Vitality and viability improvements of town centres
  • Environmental footprint reduction through denser housing patterns
Specifically, each spatial scale concentration may relate to the following:
Buildings - compact forms reduce heat loss i.e. terraces, reuse existing derelict buildings, higher buildings are also an option.
Spaces - road and parking space reduction, vitality increase via activity concentration.
Quarters - intensify around transport intersections, encourage high density buildings, but ensure a viable range of uses, security and privacy needs covered.
Settlements - enforce urban containment, intensify transport corridors, link active centres.

Distinctiveness relates to:
Preservation and enhancement of interconnected features that are of particular importance or beauty. These features may include constructs of unique geographic, physical and environmental attributes together with cultural circumstances as well as other human interventions through the years which may have affected a settlement's form and purpose.

Specifically, by each spatial scale distinctiveness may relate to the following:
Buildings - consider surrounding architecture, retain important buildings and heritage, enhance locally distinctive building settings.
Spaces - reflect urban form and town character, retain important building groups, maintain sense of place.
Quarters - reflect history and morphological patterns, consider local uses and qualities, reflect public associations.
Settlements - protect regional identity and landscape character, preserve and highlight archaeological inheritance, make use of any topographical setting.

Biotic support relates to:

  • Maintaining environmental diversity especially of species.
  • Supporting the ongoing natural processes within and surrounding human settlements.
  • Providing space for flora and fauna within the urban environment to support wild life.
The Urban environment is a part of a wider functioning ecosystem in which it exists side by side with the biotic environment (spaces for flora and fauna).

Specifically, by each spatial scale biotic support may relate to the following:
Buildings - consider them as habitat and green them.
Spaces - include robust soft landscaping, plant more street trees, encourage private gardens.
Quarters - provide minimum public open space standards, respect natural features, create new habitats in public and private open spaces.
Settlements - link private and public open spaces in a network, integrate town and country, support indigenous species.

Self-sufficiency relates to:

  • Human needs
  • Issues of resource management
  • Participation through active involvement in developing a vision for one's locality and its ongoing management
Examples would include self-sufficiency in transport i.e. via cycling, at work i.e. by working from home via fast internet connections, on food supply i.e. by allowing space for food production in remote locations.
The above can be achieved with the government's support through:
  • Engaging - make the public participate in debates via community and social networks and marketing
  • Encouraging - reward and discourage certain behaviors, via local awards, fiscal incentives or legislative controls i.e. on parking
  • Enabling - provide infrastructure to support sustainable life styles i.e. safe, comfortable cycling routes to key destinations, space and recycling bins in convenient locations
  • Exemplifying - demonstrate via exemplar schemes and local leadership.
The big challenge is to reconcile the above sustainable urban design principals on the basis of local contextual factors and the development's aspirations.
Implementations of the above can be observed in the BedZED ecovillage in London. Other examples of sustainable design in cities include ARUP's zero carbon city in Dongtan in Shanghai and the Foster city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi.

Concluding the above, sustainable urban design is a very diverse process where both public and private sector expertise and insight will always be required. Private sector usually will offer expertise, resources and will be adequately motivated (provided there is a profit margin), whereas the public sector will usually act as coordinator, regulator, manager, even landowner on occasions. Each development will be a juggling act between the two depending on local particular circumstances.

In further detail the stakeholders and influencers who need to be engaged across the various spatial scales mentioned above maybe found on the following table:



Carmona M (2009) 'Sustainable Urban Design: Definitions and Delivery' International Journal for Sustainable Development, 12(1): 48-77


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